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Suds and flames make great summer meals

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What is the secret connection between grilling and beer?

Yes, we cook outside in the summer when the heat drives us out of the kitchen, and beer is the classic hot-weather quencher.

And yes, guys drink most of the beer and guys also buy most of the grills.

But the real taste connection between the fire-blackened meat and vegetables we love to prepare on our patios and the beer we cook with and drink is caramel.

Caramel is the reason beer goes with grilled food and wine often doesn't. Any food you cook over the high heat of a fire develops a sweet, rich intensity of flavor: Think of caramelized onions or the crunchy bits of crackling on roasted meat. And many beers start with malted barley that has been through a similar process of heating, which brings toasty malt flavors to the fore.

That caramel note becomes what writer Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery, calls the "flavor hook," or "the part of the beer's flavor and aroma that matches, harmonizes or accentuates the flavors in your food. When the flavors meet on your tongue, they 'recognize' each other and this creates a harmony."

Smart cooks play on this harmony in choosing beers to serve with a meal. Gathering around the grill means seeking alternatives to the mainstream styles that are our automatic summer beer choices. Instead, look for amber ales and lagers, bock beers or brown ales that will be light enough for a hot afternoon, but have a backbone of toffee sweetness to bring out the best in grilled foods.

You can take advantage of those flavor synergies when you prepare the food, too. Beer marinades, bastes and sauces can accentuate the flavors of grilled food and, at the same time, add moisture without a lot of calories. And you can use heavier beers -- robust porters and stouts -- that are loaded with flavor but that may be too heavy for some to drink on a hot summer evening.

Here are some beer and summer food pairings.

Beer pairings for grilled foods

Many of the best matches with roasted and grilled foods share a "roasty" quality. Pork crackling, crispy chicken skin and grilled onions all have a sweet quality, and they go beautifully with beers that also have a nice, malty sweetness.

• Beef: Porter

Porters are dark and rich, but without the "burnt toast" quality of their descendant, stout. The beer is probably named for the porters who carried goods around 19th-century London. Guess where they drank? Porter houses. And what cut of beef did they prefer? Right again.

Examples: Fuller's London Porter, Duck-Rabbit Porter, Smuttynose Robust Porter, or -- for a play on the season's flavors -- Stone Brewing Co.'s Smoked Porter.

• Pork: Belgian-style farmhouse ales, either bière de garde or saison

These beers have a fair amount of alcohol (around 7 percent), which carries a lot of flavor. The yeast imparts a spicy, peppery, herbal note.

Examples: Dupont Foret from Belgium, Jolly Pumpkin's Bam Bière, Great Divide Saison, North Coast Le Merle.

• Lamb: German schwarzbier

This is the darkest of the lagers, but still soft and dry -- a good balance to the fattiness of lamb.

Examples: Köstritzer or Einbecher from Germany, Xingu from Brazil, Black Radish from Weeping Radish on North Carolina's Outer Banks.

• Fish (salmon or tuna): American IPA

American IPA with salmon -- or any substantial, meaty fish -- is wonderful. The bitterness of the IPA cuts through the oiliness of the fish and sets you up for the next mouthful.

Examples: Highland Kashmir IPA, Belhaven Twisted Thistle, Anderson Valley Hop Ottin' IPA, Bear Republic Racer 5.

• Shellfish: Irish dry stout

Despite its rich flavor and opaque black color, Irish dry stout is light in the mouth. Here's where the "burnt toast" quality is a wonderful counterpoint to the brininess of shrimp, oysters and crab.

Examples: Guinness is the classic. Look for "Irish dry stout" rather than other styles of stout, which are too rich. Try O'Hara's or Moylan's Irish stout.

• Poultry: Dunkel, the lightest of the darker lagers

Dunkel has sweet, nutty maltiness that makes it wonderful with chicken.

Examples: Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel, Zötler Bier Korbinian Dunkel, Pennsylvania Brewing Co. Penn Dark

• Grilled vegetables: Belgian dubbel

Belgian dubbel is a rich, strong beer, but without hoppy bitterness. I'm imagining it with grilled eggplant.

Examples: Chimay Première, Westmalle Dubbel, Allagash Double.

• Spicy marinade: A classic pilsner

Chilled, a classic pilsner has enough bitterness, crispness and carbonation to refresh after hot, spicy food.

Examples: Czechvar, Victory Prima Pils, Stoudt's Pilsner, Oskar Blues Mama's Little Yella Pils.

• Tangy sauces: Flanders brown or red sour beer

These are rather startling beers, but delicious. This pairs with tart, but not too hot, flavors.

Examples: Rodenbach, Duchesse de Bourgogne, De Proef Zoetzuur, Dogfish Head Festina Pêche.

Julie Johnson is the editor of All About Beer Magazine, based in Durham. Reach Johnson at editor@allaboutbeer.com.

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